After spending some time in the 16th century last week, an interesting story brought me forward to the 19th and 20th centuries today.
The composer Robert Schumann has long been one of my favourite composers of chamber music. Unfortunately he had a too short life with a tragic ending. Once on track to be one of the best pianists in Germany, over-eagerness and a poorly thought-out contraption to help his finger dexterity led to a hand injury, effectively ending his career as a performer. Lucky for us, he turned to composition instead, and wrote many beautiful works. Yet he suffered from a mental disorder which eventually led to attempted suicide, after which he had himself admitted to a mental asylum in Endenich, near Bonn. He died there in 1856 at forty-six years of age.
Some think that many of his later works were destroyed after his death by his friends, who thought they were tainted by his madness. One of the works that was not destroyed was his violin concerto in D major, written in 1853, a year before his fateful suicide attempt. It was written for the violinist Joseph Joachim, a famed violinist and good friend of Schumann’s. Joachim had played it once for Schumann when it was first composed, but after the events of the following years he did not continue to perform the work, thinking it was a product of Schumann’s madness. He shared this opinion with Schumann’s wife Clara and close friend Johannes Brahms, and the concerto was not published and remained unknown to the public for years.
Joachim left the manuscript with the Prussian State Library and stipulated that the work should not be played until 100 years after Schumann’s death.
This is where the story takes an interesting turn.
In March of 1933, at a séance in London where the two sister violinists Jelly d’Aranyi and Adila Fachiri were in attendance, the spirit of Robert Schumann told d’Aranyi to find his violin concerto and perform it. In a later séance the spirit of Joseph Joachim rather helpfully popped by to let them know they could find the score at the Prussian State Library. I’m sure it was just a coincidence that d’Aranyi and Fachiri happened to be Joseph Joachim’s great-nieces…
Despite these messages from the spirit world, apparently nothing further came of it until four years later the violinist Yehudi Menuhin received a copy of the music and planned to premiere it in San Francisco in 1937. While announcing these plans, he was interrupted by a protesting Jelly d’Aranyi, citing her right to premiere it based on the spiritual messages she had received.
Although it would have been fascinating to see how that discussion would have panned out, the German government foiled both their plans by getting involved. They insisted the work should be premiered by a German. In the end it was Georg Kulenkampff who prepared and premiered the work with the Berlin Philharmonic in November of 1937, with the help of Georg Schunemann and Paul Hindemith (though the latter’s own works were banned in Germany at that time).
Menuhin gave the second performance at Carnegie Hall, and d’Aranyi played the London premiere of the work.
Despite its colourful history and Schumann’s status in the canon of Western classical composers, the violin concerto is not as well known or oft-performed as the more popular concerti of Beethoven, Mendelssohn, Bruch, et al.
If you are not familiar with it yet, you are in for a treat. And one with an excellent backstory.